Archive for Fiona Watson

Sudden Chimp Act

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on July 28, 2014 by dcairns

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Fiona is to blame for dragging me to see DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES but to be fair I did enjoy the previous film in the series. It’s a thoughtful study of revolution (evolution being too slow for Hollywood), showing the painful necessity to throw off one’s oppressors and the violence that results. The climactic battle is both terrible and exhilarating.

Unfortunately, DOTPOTA is not as thoughtful as ROTPOTA, though it would like to be. The screenwriters of the first film pretty much set up this sequel in the first film — what else could it be about but a battle between more or less evenly matched human and ape forces — this makes it both closer to the J. Lee Thompson BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES than ROTPOTA was to any of the previous ape films, and means the moviemakers have a challenge to stave off predictability. Unfortunately, the original writers have been rewritten on this one, and the resulting scenario plays out as something much mucked-about-with. Major characters (the woman, the kid) have incomplete, trailing character arcs — they disappear from the action when no longer needed. There are lots of scenes with no dramatic content at all, which are supposed to be character-building but just consist of sedentary figures exchanging backstories. And in terms of body count, there are no casualities that mean anything, no losses that the audience can truly regret. This weakens the anti-war message — though not as badly as the ending, where the quest for a bad-ass one-liner for Caesar results in him making the kind of statement one associates with Nazism, denying that his enemy is a member of his species.

As in Tim Burton’s happy idiot version, the bad ape is the whole show: Toby Kebbell is far more ape-like “as” Koba than the anthropomorphized chimp-lite “played” by Andy Serkis. This is also somewhat problematic, since we have a film that wants to preach tolerance but the bad guy is convincingly “other” and the good guy is made to be more like us. It’s like making a civil rights drama with Michael Jackson as hero and, I dunno, Bill Duke as villain.

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Visually, the film does have pleasures — the animated apes look generally photographically real most of the time, a major advance on the previous movie (and they get more screen time and there are more of them) and director Matt Reeves pulls a couple of neat tricks — a long-take hand-held hide-and-seek in City Hall (though it’s not as impressive as a similar extended shot in True Detective) and a 360 from a rotating tank turret that almost made me wish I’d shelled out for 3D. But it’s actually a surprise when these tour-de-force moments appear late in the day, since the coverage has been rather conventional until these points.

Since the sequel to the prequel/reboot is more of an action movie, it helps that it has a more effective human lead than James Franco, whose character had to pretty much fail at everything he attempted, and couldn’t even fail valiantly. Here, Jason Clarke gets to put his life on the line for the sake of peace, early on: a striking, genuinely heroic and noble act which buys him quite a lot of credit in my book. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get a single memorable line or unusual, human reaction to the crazy situations he finds himself in, and his backstory is vague and uninvolving: bereaved, like all the humans, but not of anyone we can picture or care about. This wooliness about all the emotional ties that are supposed to matter to the characters stacks the shooty-gun side of the film way higher than the touchy-feely side. I didn’t feel ANYTHING, and actually the previous movie is very emotional — almost unbearable at times.

Here are Fiona’s thoughts, via her own word-writings –

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THE SCIENCE BIT!

Those were David’s word-writings, transposed from his very own brain, now here’s my chimpcentric (They take up most of the screen time. Sorry gorillas and orangs) opinion as the Shadowplayhouse’s resident armchair primatologist. And that may be the reason why my response to the film was not quite as ecstatic as I’d hoped. The writers have cherry-picked the facts they wanted and disregarded everything else. I don’t really blame the film-makers for this. In order to be scientifically accurate  the film would have to be an 18 and not a piece of science fiction. It’s already a pretty intense 12A, but some of the stuff they’ve omitted has nothing to do with the certification.

Let’s start with the almost complete absence of female characters. With the exceptions of the character I like to call ‘Mrs Caesar’ and Keri Russell’s ‘Ellie’, who makes up the numbers of the  thoroughly  anaemic human population of this film. ‘Mrs Caesar’ actually has a name, Cornelia, but we never hear it, nor does she communicate verbally, and I think I know the reason why she literally has no voice. Female chimps’ vocalisations are pretty much the same as male chimps’ vocalisations: Low and guttural. In the 1950’s an experiment was done to try to teach a very young female chimp, Viki, to speak a few simple words of English. This is what she sounded like.

I believe the film-makers were afraid this would provoke laughter so they decided to avoid it completely. There’s some evidence that Cornelia originally had a larger role in the film. A publicity still of her wearing a bizarre, twigs and berries headpiece (Actually, it’s not so bizarre. Just before the films release a story broke about a group of chimpanzees who’d started wearing twigs as ornamentation, just for ornamentation’s sake!) was circulating on the web and the fact they cast a well know voice actor in the part. I’m convinced there were many more scenes involving her that were cut to make room for more action. The females we are aware of are a group tending to Cornelia during her illness. We know they’re female because their vocalisations are higher pitched, like Monty Python’s Pepperpot Women.  This doesn’t bode well for the sequel. Are all the female characters to be denied a voice?

In the film itself they’re certainly denied a voice about what’s going on in their group. While female chimps do tend to be dominated by males, they are not completely powerless. In fact they have a hierarchy of their own and can influence who the Alpha Male is by siding with one particular male over another. Koba is patently an absolutely terrible leader and some females may have wanted to stay loyal to Caesar, or indeed, a completely different chimp. It’s all very convenient to send them off to the forests with the kids when the going gets tough and the tough get going.

Females  are actually a very important part of the group dynamic. Males are very attached to their mothers and even in adulthood will go back to her for comfort (sound familiar?) when distressed. In reality, Blue Eyes, Caesar’s son, would be more likely to be hanging around the sickbed, fretting about his old mum, rather than out and about being taught how to hunt deer. Although to give the film its due, chimpanzees in the wild do collectively hunt monkeys and even use sticks as spear-like implements. Another thing it gets right, is the inter-generational acquisition of sign language. Amazingly, this has already happened. Washoe, one of the first signing chimps, taught her adopted son, with no human assistance.

I think it’s shameful that we have to hark back to the 60’s original for a strong female character. Zira absolutely rocked: intelligent, feisty and funny, she was a major character in the ensemble. And speaking of ‘funny’. At no point do we see any of the apes having much fun before the combat starts. No playing, no chasing, no tickling ,no hugging, no grooming, no kissing, and most egregiously, no laughing (Koba does some mock laughing in order to deceive humans, but that doesn’t count). Yes, apes laugh, they have a sense of humour and love being playful. They also lie, so Koba’s statement that human’s “lie”, indicating an understanding of the concept, is entirely believable, as proved in the infamous sign language experiments started in the 60s. The film itself is strangely devoid of moments of humor that would really help lift it. Although I loved Keri Russell’s, “Try not to speak,” to the injured Caesar. A wonderfully self knowing bit of dialogue that NO-ONE in the cinema laughed at.

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To balance things out again, there’s a great moment where Jason Clarke (Malcolm) is forced onto his knees by the other apes, while in the presence of Caesar. This is textbook subordinate behaviour to a superior. But Malcolm keeps on getting up again! Foolish human. But they don’t cry. Oh, chimps have tear ducts to lubricate the eye but they are incapable of crying ‘emotional’ tears. That does not mean they do not feel sadness. “Human lies!” again. In fact we may be the only species on earth to weep in response to emotion. There’s anecdotal evidence that elephants cry for the same reasons we do but it hasn’t been properly established.

What has been established is that bonobos are not violent war-mongers. Luckily, at no point in the film, do we learn that Koba, the stand-out character who rides off with the film, on horseback with guns blazing, is meant to be one. He doesn’t look like one and he doesn’t behave like one. Bonobos are extremely rare and have NEVER been used in medical experimentation, thus making a nonsense of his primary motivation, hatred for all humans due to their mistreatment of him in the labs. In reality bonobos have a matriarchal society where conflict is resolved via sex.  Bonobos are too busy making love to make war. They do have a darker side, and aggressive skirmishes can break out, but not to the extent of chimpanzees and humans, who organize armies and are murderously territorial. And yet, I got a massive vicarious thrill from watching Koba seethe, scream and generally create chaos; firing two automatic weapons at the same time, ‘manning’ a tank machine gun turret and baring his huge, intimidating fangs at anyone and everything. Was he unleashing my inner ape? Or does it suggest that I have some all too human issues? Only my subconscious and possibly David hold the key to those questions.

Something else I observed was that the meaning of the palm-stroking gesture, asking for permission in the first film, has been amended to one of appeasement or acceptance. So someone out there was listening to what the experts had to say. But not enough in my opinion! To conclude, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a brave, but not entirely successful attempt to inject some intelligence into the summer blockbuster. It’s dark, emotional and tries to be about something important. The Apes series has always been about holding up a mirror to OUR society. Look at what’s happening in Gaza.  And hopefully, thanks to its quite astonishing melding of animation and performance, never again will we see them being used on film for the purpose of entertaining humans. If it helps achieve that, then it will have done much to alleviate the suffering of our closest genetic neighbours on this planet.  Because we are primates too.

Written in Blood

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by dcairns

Final poster for Brussels

Trailer for new horror movie, LET US PREY.

The movie was written by Fiona & I and Rae Brunton (OUTPOST). If you like high intensity situations, creative violence and creative swearing, this movie is for you, We disclaim all responsibility for the title — Fiona & I wrote about a dozen drafts over the years, all of which were called CELL 6. But you can’t win every battle.

We have seen an edit of the movie and, though as writers (especially ones who have directed), we were always going to have quibbles, we can attest that Brian O’Malley has directed the hell out of it, and his cast, including Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones), Pollyanna Mackintosh (THE WOMAN) and Niall Greig Fulton (NATAN) have all done excellent work. It’s scary, intense, funny in places, and looks massive. (It wasn’t.) And the cinematography by Piers McGrail is stunning.

It’s also EXTREMELY violent and so persons of a squeamish disposition are advised not to look at the following trailer AT ALL. I give it a Force Ten Gore Warning. We wrote a sensationally horrific script, then were told to make it approximately three times more horrific, then Rae made it horrificer still, then it was filmed and I think got a bit viler yet again. Niall, after acting in it, said “This might be not just the nastiest thing I’ve been in, but the nastiest thing I’ve SEEN.” And Niall has seen everything.

Also — the trailer contains what could be described as heavy spoilers — you can’t tell what the film’s about, but you’ll see the death scenes of major characters. Since you don’t know any of the characters yet arguably they’re not quite spoilers — they only spoil things if you remember all these images of mayhem when you watch the film, which may not happen for months. Viewer discretion.

OK, if there’ anyone left, proceed. But… well… we warned you!

The movie has its premiere tomorrow at Brussels International Fantasy Film Festival. Mr O’Malley and Mr Cunningham will be in attendance.

The Side Effects Of Side Effects

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2013 by dcairns

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Today’s post is written by a Shadowplay guest blogger, my partner Fiona Watson. Unavoidably, it contains major, though non-specific, spoilers for Soderbergh’s SIDE EFFECTS, so you should only read if you’ve seen the movie or else don’t intend to.

David had asked me in my (in)capacity as a sufferer of mental illness, (specifically mixed state bipolar disorder) to write something about Side Effects, but it turned into something a bit bigger. The subject of the presentation of mental health issues in film is vast and is probably more suited to a dissertation than a blog piece, so please forgive me for the rather fragmentary, scattershot feel to this piece.

Let’s get something straight first. I like Steven Soderbergh films. I like them very much. I liked his pandemic opus where Gwyneth Paltrow gets the top of her head sawn off. Who wouldn’t? I liked his female mixed martial artist actioner starring Gina Carrano, a woman who can actually do all the amazing things her character’s required to do, including kicking the crap out of then murderizing the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender. Nice. I’m chomping on my specially rhinestone-encrusted bit to see his HBO Liberace biopic, Behind The Candelabra. But oh, Steven Soderbergh, did your swan song from cinema have to be Side Effects?

I always become infused with excitement and hope when someone makes a film tackling mental illness. It’s a subject close to my malfunctioning brain and heart. I had my first depressive episode in 1994. Since then I’ve had recurrent visits from The Black Dog.  Many years can go by when I’m perfectly fine. Then The Dog rears its ugly head, eyes blazing and seizes me in its slavering jaws, tossing me around like a rag doll. Trust me. I’m well qualified to talk about this subject but I don’t recommend it as a lifestyle choice.

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And so I turn my expert eye on Side Effects. My excitement is always tempered with concern. Have they got it right? The answer is that for half of this film’s running time, they do get it right, before (SPOILER ALERT) the thing devolves into Basic Instinct with psychiatrists and lesbians and lesbian psychiatrists. Now to be fair, it’s not Steven Soderbergh’s fault he didn’t make the film I wanted to see, a serious study of psychiatric disorder and its treatment in the modern world. What we have instead is a twisty turny thriller. Nothing wrong with that and it delivers very well. Rooney Mara, an utterly fabulous and compelling actress, is great, and her low-key, low affect, unshowy performance is commendable. She nails the deadening, wading through molasses physicality of depression perfectly.

But the big surprise is how good Jude Law is. What is particularly impressive about his psychiatrist character is his ambiguity. Apparently this doesn’t play well with test audiences. ‘Is he good? Is he bad? Is he both? I can’t handle both!’ Catherine Zeta Jones is also very effective as the other psychiatrist. As the whole world must know by now, CZJ has Bipolar II. It’s my belief she never would have revealed her mental health status had it not been on the verge of being leaked to the press. So she made the announcement herself in a pre-emptive strike. In fact she recently gave an interview where she pronounced herself fed up with being the Bipolar Poster Girl du jour, and who can blame her given the circumstances behind it being made public?

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On the whole, I enjoyed the film but left feeling short-changed. The trouble is — major spoiler alert — plot twists reveal that nothing that happens in the film happens due to mental illness, drug side effects, or the pharmaceutical industry. The first half sets us up to think about these issues, but the second half negates them. The Black Dog is a Red Herring. And while the film performs its narrative tricks well, if you do think about the story afterwards, you will probably come to the conclusion that no real person would embark on a criminal conspiracy of the kind seen in this film.

There are very few films (in the English language) that tackle the subject of mental illness head on and with any degree of accuracy. The only film in which I’ve ever seen psychomotor retardation —  where you physically slow down in speech and movement like a clockwork toy winding down — was Mike Figgis’s Mr Jones which I’ll come back to later. Nicole Kidman’s turn as Virginia Wolfe in The Hours was laughable. In reality Wolfe would become so manic she’d dash around the house talking gibberish at high speed, hallucinating talking birds and her dead mother. When she crashed with depression she was basically catatonic and took to her bed for weeks on end. All I could see was an actor moping around in a prosthetic nose. Not good enough. She didn’t even give us the monotone voice that comes with psychomotor retardation. I haven’t read the book so I have no idea if there’s a more accurate representation there and it’s the adaptation that’s at fault. The world is crying out for a full and accurate Wolfe biopic, with all the highs and lows laid bare.

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And speaking of ‘real life’ characters, what about the largely negative critical reaction to Keira Knightly’s performance as Sabina Speilrein in A Dangerous Method? The emphasis was solely on The Chin. The Chin was jutting out at a weird angle. The Chin seemed to have a life of its own, wandering about in a carefree fashion. What would The Chin do next? Almost everyone agreed that Keira and The Chin were over the top. What those journalists didn’t know was that Spielrein’s behaviour was one hundred times more weird and unpredictable than the few hysterical tics Cronenberg had decided upon. Maybe sometimes it’s necessary to edit the truth.

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One recent film that gives us the highs but edits the lows of bipolar disorder is Silver Linings Playbook. It’s great on mania but it barely touches on depression. I put it to you that the reason for this is that no audience wants to pay to see Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence sobbing inconsolably and so lacking in energy they can barely lift a fork. And if there was an audience that would, it would be quite select. It might be more palatable if Bradley Cooper took his shirt off (more than he does already), ditto Jennifer Lawrence. In fact you could probably model an entire franchise out of Jennifer Lawrence crying and having difficulty eating her dinner if she was bereft of outer wear. But I digress. Watching someone being depressed just isn’t entertaining and that’s the crux of the problem. The reality of mental illness is horrifying and gruelling, and your average punter wants to be entertained, not bludgeoned over the head with troublesome ‘facts’.

However, one brilliantly conceived scene, a ‘meet cute’ over the dinner table with the leads swapping pharmacological anecdotes gets a big seal of approval from me. “Gooble Gobble. Gooble Gobble. One of us. One of us.” (I wonder what my ‘seal of approval’ would look like?  Perhaps a blister pack with a smiley over each compartment.) Later on, Bradley and Jennifer go to a diner and we have another marvellous scene where she tells him all about her “slut wife” status. In psychiatric parlance, Jen had become ‘hypersexual’ in the aftermath of her husband’s death. This is a (little discussed) symptom of bipolar disorder. In the past she would have been labelled as a nymphomaniac. A subject matter that enormously subtle, uncontroversial film maker Lars Von Trier will be tackling in his next feature. Hopefully, Lars will be making another appearance later in this article. He will be arriving by camper van because of his fear of flying so he could show up at any moment. Or not at all.

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Remember back in the mists of three paragraphs ago when I mentioned  I’d be back with something more to say about Mr Jones? Well here I am. And here he is. In all his buff, manic, silver foxy, highly compromised glory. If ever a film felt like it had been cut to ribbons to appease queasy producers it’s this one. According to rumour, the producers of Mr Jones said, “I know this could cut the running time a bit, but could he be a Manic rather than a Manic Depressive?” All of this must have been rather depressing for Mr Figgis, because he does manage to squeeze in the aforementioned psychomotor retardation – Gere wanders pitifully and very, very slowly through the city, unable to even wash. He finds himself in a building which looks like a Music Academy. This building exists in the past (at least that’s my reading of it) and each room is an echo from decades before. The sounds become cacophonous. Everything becomes more chaotic. This is a very skillful evocation of the confusion, sensitivity to noise and horrible nostalgia of manic depression. Somehow he makes it back to his apartment where Lena Olin and her hair are waiting for him.  He ends up slumped on a stool in a shower, naked and grubby, while an annoyingly cheerful psychiatric nurse sings at him (“C’mon let’s make a round!”) and hoses him down. Depression on its own just doesn’t put bums on seats. Richard Gere charging into an orchestra recital and taking over the conducting DOES.  Well a few bums anyway. Mr Jones was not a great box office success. Realistic depictions of psychiatric suffering just don’t create revenue. A shame since this is probably Gere’s finest performance to date.

If you want to experience that kind of thing you probably have to look outside of English language cinema. Or get yourself sectioned. Oh look here comes Lars! He’s just parked the camper van! “Hi Lars! How’s it hangin’?!” I have yet to see Lars’ Melancholia. Von Trier and his leading lady Kirsten Dunst have both made their statuses as depressives public. For someone who’ll happily confess to feeling sympathetic towards Nazis, Von Trier is surprisingly tight-lipped about the details of his depression and anxiety. What kind of treatment regime is he on? Does he even have one? Charlotte Gainsbourg has a very convincing panic attack in Antichrist, which I felt he must have coached her through in some detail. Perhaps we have to look to Lars for an unexpurgated cinematic representation of depression, when he’s finished dabbling in hardcore depictions of the life of a ‘Nymphomaniac,’  a descriptor which no longer exists in the DSM.

Because even in the arthouse sector, mental illness isn’t seen as box office unless you edit the reality down to something more appealing.

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